Habits, Covid19 and Energy

Covid-19 is changing our habits and that profoundly impacts energy…

Two of my favourite books are ‘The power of habit’ and ‘The Chimp Paradox’ which I will admit I audiobooked! (A habit I have built is reading a lot via audiobooks when driving!). In both these books the authors take you through the absolute power of habits on changing mindset, performance and health and how you can consciously manage your actions and feelings through building up good habits.

Habits become super interesting when you think about them in the wider context of Covid-19. Since March 2020 we have all to some degree had our worlds turn on their heads. Habits we have carefully maintained (both good and bad) were deconstructed overnight… that morning Starbucks / monthly visit to parents / quick weekend in Paris all disappeared. As we moved into lockdown, we formed new habits, some good and some bad. The news has been filled with stories of increasing demand for sewing machines, exercise bikes and on the flip, side increasing drinking and screen time amongst many others.

We are habit learning machines and that’s why I believe that many of the changes being embedded by the prolonged restrictions will last.

At the macro level changes in our activities are most clearly seen in energy consumption. Globally Oil and Electricity demand have dropped during the covd19 crisis. The IEA seeing a reduction in global electricity demand of 2.5% in Q1 2020 and a staggering 57% reduction in global oil demand – predominantly driven by a huge reduction in transport. 65% or the global aviation fleet was sat idle in April 2020! Rail travel was particularly hard hit as workers abandoned city centres on mass leaving only 17% of workers holding the fort at their desks in August. Microsoft teams, rarely used before lockdown by most became a staple part of office life – leaping by 70% in just the first month of lockdown to 75m users globally.

The Habit of Commuting

‘For 20 years I have got up at 6am to sit in traffic to get to work just to sit at my desk and check email – I will never do that again’ Posted on LinkedIn August 2020

A big impact in the UK of the lockdown has been the near desertion of urban centres. With some major employers saying they have no intention of returning their staff to city centres and employees still staying away – with around 17% of staff back at their desks in August. The slow demise of retail has been a known trend; however, city centres had been able to replace retail units with offices and hotels investing in urban areas like never before. In fact my previous blogs on energy had focused on how we could deliver the heat energy needed in these compressed urban areas.

Once people no longer need to be together to be productive there is a huge paradigm shift. Energy hungry cities are replaced by more spread out demand as people change the way they work and travel. For a long time, a top down energy industry has focused on feeding power hungry urban centres for 5 days a week… if we disperse more then decentralised energy becomes super interesting. Local production, local storage and local distribution become key.

The Habit of Global Travel

Another stark image of the impact of coronavirus has been airplanes lined up at storage sites. 65% of the global fleet was in storage by mid-April 2020! Airports have sat empty

The ease and relative low cost of air travel have made us build up travelling habits. For decades we have learned to enjoy the buzz of planning a weekend escape or that to have a successful meeting it needs to be face to face. In fact the travel industry feeds the habit with reward programs and status – frequent flyer programs aren’t there because airlines are nice – they are there because they tap into some of our most base needs and desires (belonging, status, gathering). I will guarantee that once Covid19 restrictions lift airlines will be pushing their reward program members hard to energise their most regular customer’s old habits!  Especially as prior to lockdown 15% of flyers took 70% of the flights!

I believe the impact on air travel will be there – but it won’t be as stark as some forecasters are predicting. That’s why we need to look for high density fuels – like synthetic aviation fuel to get to decarbonise air travel.

What next for energy post covid19?

As time progresses habits become harder to shift – working from home becomes the norm as does online shopping or a trip to Cornwall instead of the Canaries! The Energy as a sector is already going through an epic transition and Covid19 has both accelerated this and delayed it. What we don’t yet know if whether there is a significant adjustment in human behaviour to take account of or just a short-term blip in a longer inevitable trend.

There are many sectors impacted by changing habits… and each of these in large or small way will impact energy – more online shopping means more vans on the road, more time at home means increased domestic heating demand amongst many other examples.

What matter now is how these habits stick. Which ones are spring back instantly to old ways and which will stay with us forever? The next six months will be critical in defining the future and how these already slowly embedding routines remain with us into the next decade.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry – giving him a front-row seat on the energy roller-coaster. He began his career constructing oil refineries before moving to work across fossil and renewable electricity generation. More recently John has been leading the growth of decentralised energy and district heating.

John is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Energy Institute and has an MBA in Global Energy. John regularly writes and speaks about the future of energy. He lives in Bath in the United Kingdom.

John is author of the book ‘The Future of Energy’ which is available from Amazon. UKUS

Photos Courtesy of Unsplash.

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